Monday, 30 November 2009

An abandoned village

San-Jo, in a remote offshoot of the Tadami valley, was left to the woods thirty years ago.

That most private of places now open to the elements: someone's bath

It is the graves that tell you there was once a village of twelve houses in this beautiful, hard place. The valley entrance is guarded by tall crags, breached only by an unsurfaced road in need of constant attention to stop it falling into the river a hundred feet below. From the concrete bridge that now skirts the cliff you can still see the crumbling remains of the old track that was cut into the vertical rock face.  Originally the route over the hills would have been the quickest way to the next village in the main valley. Before cars this would have been at the least a four hour walk, and in winter much longer in snow shoes even after them. In the four months cut off by snow, the twelve houses would have been their all in all. Then each small village would arrange a temporary school for the local children - if there were any.

The literal meaning of San-Jo is 'the place of three', and whether by coincidence or not, there are three large standing stones by the road, now near a collapsing shed and an up-ended fridge.

Three stones by the track at San-jo

They have the look of placed monoliths, rounded and unusual in that they are without any markings. They and the gravestones will outlast everything else, and the long-gone people. Some of the gravestones are dated from two hundred years ago, in the Edo period, and many are much older, worn and crumbling into the ground. The ground around them is kept clear - respect for the dead is one of central pillars of Japan, but there are no offerings or flowers. Even an outsider can feel the pain of this evidence of bloodlines ended or scattered far into the cities, with no-one caring enough to return. I have been in cleared Scottish glens with the same atmosphere and a palpable sense of the lives of others in the land.

The fate of San-Jo foreshadows what may come to many villages in Aizu. In our own, half of the houses are already empty, and the average age is seventy. Some of the graves  go untended, signalling that the family has moved away to the cities. It may be that the current generation of older people working the land and gathering wild food in the woods are the last to live in this ancient way here.


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